Tour de Golf Tours: The LPGA Tour
Meet JC and Phyllis, my dear friends and hosts for stops #2 and #3 on my Four-Tours-In-Five-Days expedition. Two of the most accommodating people you’ll ever want to meet, you’ll notice that in preparation for my arrival, they had gone to the trouble of installing a set of bleachers in back of their house.
OK, I made that up – the grandstand was installed by the previous owner to hold plants, but the “most accommodating people” part is absolutely true.
On tap this day was the LPGA Championship, the second “major” tournament on that tour’s 2010 schedule. Held at Locust Hill Country Club outside of Rochester, NY, right from our arrival it was obvious that this was going to be an entirely different experience than that of last week’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
For starters there was plenty of available parking – and all within the same zip code of the course. A short stroll brought us to the front gate, where the security search process was in marked contrast to the U.S. Open, which made Homeland Security protocol look like that of the Longview Junior High Safety Patrol.
At Locust Hill, the entry process consisted of friendly senior citizens glancing at our tickets and saying “Nice to see you today. You don’t have a cell phone or a camera with you, do you?” That was unfair. It’s one thing to lie to a beefy security guard; it’s another to fib to somebody who looks like they’re just about to offer you home-baked cookies. I crumbled and gave up on any thought of trying to smuggle a camera in. My Blackberry I absolutely needed though – I had to track down the highly mobile force of nature known as Cindy Miller.
Cindy is one half of Cindy & Allen Miller, the First Couple of tour golf. In the way that some people collect stamps, the Millers have spent their lives collecting tour memberships: the PGA Tour, the LPGA Tour, the Futures Tour, the Legends Tour. Both are now accomplished teaching pros – Allen a member of the PGA of America and Cindy an LPGA Top 50 Teacher. Daughter Kelly is a producer with the Golf Channel, and son Jamie is an aspiring pro currently paying his dues on the Tarheel Tour. Meet the Miller Golf Group, operating out of the golfing mecca of…Buffalo? Weird, I know.
All you need to know about Cindy Miller can be summed up by the following: During the day, she noticed that a man wearing camouflage shorts and a T-shirt was accompanying the player pairing that included LPGA glamour girl Natalie Gulbis. Figuring that somebody dressed that way inside the ropes could only be a bodyguard or similar security detail, she approached him between holes and asked “Are you on Lust Control duty?” Taken aback at first, he freely admitted that he was.
It took much of the day for me to fully grasp this, but the four of us attending the event – JC, Cindy, Allen and myself – were there for different reasons.
What started me thinking this way was JC’s commentary as we toured the course. He noticed all of the subtleties about the play in front of us well before I did. He could identify a player’s club selection from 50 feet away, just by observing the loft of the club as it lay on the ground behind the ball at address. He picked up on the fact that the tournament was being played under “lift, clean and place” rules as a result of soggy early morning playing conditions. He loved to read the greens and predict in advance which way putts would break. And he wanted to see as much of the course and as many different players as possible. In short, JC is a Golf Fan – pure and unadulterated.
In comparison, I have become more Golf Clinician than Golf Fan. I was there partly for journalistic pursuits, and partly to root on the players that I had gotten to know while working for the LPGA and Futures Tours. Yes, I am a fan – but only of those certain pros. Nothing that anyone else did was of major interest to me, and I found my attention otherwise drifting toward the evaluation of tournament operations.
Intrigued by this observation, I asked Cindy and Allen separately about what they were paying attention to.
Allen said without hesitation, “I’m watching golf swings”, and he could do it all day long. The pure analytics of the golf swing are not only his business, but also his lifelong passion. He remembers promising players by their swing, and when he is intrigued by their mechanics, he considers them a kindred spirit and wants to get to know them. But he, like me, is generally oblivious to trifling things like who’s on the leaderboard. Until of course, it’s someone we know – at which point we become hyper-aware.
Cindy said equally as immediately, that she was there to check up on the players that she’d played with, or worked with on either swing mechanics or the mental side of the game. She sought the answer to the question “How are you doing as a person? How is this game treating your life?” She was on Wounded Soul Patrol.
And there are a lot of souls that need attending to, for these are challenging times for women’s golf. For better or worse, the LPGA chased the hot money during the boom times of the last decade and wound up with a handful of defunct tournaments when the real estate speculators and shell-game investment tycoons went bust.
The new, fast money is now gone, and some of the long-tenured smaller market tournaments which had struggled to keep up with rising purses and other costs wound up stretched too thin to continue. It was the perfect storm of negative variables, and a tour that as recently as 2006 had a schedule that featured 33 tournaments has now shrunk by almost a third.
The impact on LPGA Tour pros is immense, as many have gone from inserting breaks in their schedules in order to avoid burnout, to having to cobble together play on multiple tours around the world in order to make a living. Now players “have to” make the cut, and “have to” finish high enough to earn a certain payout each time they have the opportunity to play. Cindy said she could see that financial pressure in their eyes when she spoke with them.
Once she had mentioned it, it became obvious to me as well. When you don’t see someone whose game you know pretty well for a while, small changes in their mannerisms stand out. And what jumped out at me on this day was that many of the players that I’ve had the pleasure of working with and getting to know were struggling – with their swing and otherwise. One player who I had wanted to catch up with in particular looked so forlorn coming up the 18th fairway, I abandoned plans to try and see her after her round. She no doubt would have struggled to put on a good front, when what I knew she really needed was a good cry.
So if you run across an LPGA Tour player anytime soon, make sure to give her a hug. But for your own safety, first check to make sure there’s no Lust Control personnel around. You’ll recognize them by their camouflage pants.